is known by approximately ten closely related portraits in oil on canvas that were painted of merchants, public officials, ministers, and children in Puritan Boston between 1670 and 1674. The works of this artist have been regarded by many scholars as seminal in the history of American folk portraiture, at least since 1935, whennoted proponents of folk art Holger Cahill (national director of the Federal Art Project) and Alfred H.Barr (director of the Museum of Modern Art) declared theFreake portraits “among the finest of American primitives” as well as among the roots of nineteenth-century folk painting.Although no biographical information is known with certainty about the Freake-Gibbs-Mason Limner, the artist’s ten surviving works are linked by their commonstyle, color, and composition. Each of the portraits is painted in a richly patterned, linear style that emphasizes the decorative lace, Turkeywork up-holstery, and other textiles that belonged to the sitters and are included in the paintings. The costumes and possessions depicted in the Freake-Gibbs-Mason Limner’s portraits identify thesocial position of the sitters. Seventeenth-century probate records confirm that the clothes, jewelry, and furniture depicted were actually owned by the subjects withwhom they appear. Such details not only helped to individualize the sitter but also conveyed information about occupation, social rank, or gender. For example, portraits of John Freake, Edward Rawson, Robert Gibbs, and John Mason each depict a man or a boy holding gloves, a sign of gentility.An even light usually flattens the figure and de– emphasizes any modeling of the features. The draftsmanship is precise yet simplified and slightly stylized. Most of theknown works represent a single standing figure facing forward, though the noted likeness of Elizabeth Freake and her daughter Mary is a double portrait—originally asingle portrait—with the child on her mother’s lap added in 1674, and the three Mason children appear together in the only surviving group portrait by this artist. Inaddition to black, brown, and white, this artist used bright, appealing colors, such as green, red, and yellow.In short, the flat, linear style, strong frontal compositions, and use of attributes are among the defining strengths of paintings by the Freake-Gibbs-Mason Limner.These are also some of the characteristics that suggest these portraits are the basis of the American folk portraiture in the nineteenth century that flourished in the handsof artists such as Ammi Phillips (1788–1865), Joseph Whiting Stock (1815–1855), and Erastus Salisbury Field (1805–1900).While the Freake-Gibbs-Mason Limner has long held a place of honor in the history of folk art, this artist is also thought to represent an expression of the Englishcourtly style in Boston. The Boston portraits are consistent with the writings and miniatures of the Elizabethan artist Nicholas Hilliard (1547–1619). According toHilliard, linear style and flatness were to be admired, while depth and three-dimensionality were to be avoided. Indeed, Hilliard equated the linear style with truth andvirtue, qualities that may have helped to make such portraits acceptable within the restrictive Puritan culture. The use of attributes to convey social position also has itsroots in English academic painting, albeit as a holdover from the earlier medieval style. Thus, the work of the Freake-Gibbs-Mason Limner is also claimed as thefoundation of American academic painting.The term “limner,” long associated with this artist and many others, was used in the seventeenth century to refer specifically to miniaturists; the broader definition of “a painter of likenesses” was added later. As such, the term is useful in linking this artist to a tradition of American folk portraiture, but misleading in the context withinwhich the Freake-Gibbs-Mason Limner worked.
Erastus Salisbury Field; Painting, American Folk; Ammi Phillips; Joseph Whiting Stock
Cahill, Holger, and Alfred H.Barr Jr.
Art in America: A Complete Survey.
New York, 1935.Craven, Wayne.
Colonial American Portraiture: The Economic, Religious, Social, Cultural, Philosophical, Scientific, and Aesthetic Foundations.
Cambridge,England, and New York, 1986.Dresser, Louisa.
Seventeenth-Century Painting in New England.
Worcester, Mass., 1935.Fairbanks, Jonathan L., et al.
New England Begins: The Seventeenth Century,
3 vols. Boston, 1982.Strickler, Susan E. “Recent Findings on the Freake Portraits.”
vol. 5 (1981/1982): 32–47